CALGARY, Alberta (Reuters) - Air Canada ACa.TO posted a deep first-quarter net loss on Thursday as more than C$200 million ($198 million) in one-time charges masked better than expected operating results in the face of soaring fuel prices.
The charges included a C$125 million provision for an investigation by the European Commission, U.S. Department of Justice and the Canadian Competition Bureau into alleged anti-competitive cargo pricing by a number of airlines.
Air Canada, the country's biggest carrier, had said it would eventually put the provision on its books as risks of costs became greater.
It said it plans several initiatives to help withstand rising fuel costs as oil surged above $120 a barrel. They include parking older, fuel-guzzling jets and scrapping marginal routes.
That follows such other measures as boosting fares and charging customers for checking more than one bag.
"We will continue to assess the market's ability to continue to absorb higher fares and pass on, as much as possible, the higher commodity costs," Chief Executive Montie Brewer told analysts. "To date, our markets have been absorbing these increases, and our advanced bookings remain strong."
That and its fleet renewal have allowed it to maintain strong yields amid its own view that the U.S. market is descending into a "mild" recession.
In the first quarter, Air Canada had a net loss of C$288 million, or C$2.88 a share, compared with a year-earlier loss of C$34 million, or 34 Canadian cents a share.
Besides the investigation provision, the charges also included C$89 million in foreign exchange losses.
Excluding such items, it posted a loss of 62 Canadian cents a share, compared with a loss of 57 Canadian cents a share.
Air Canada had been expected to report a loss before items of 80 Canadian cents a share, according to the average forecast of analysts polled by Reuters Estimates.
Operating revenue for the quarter was C$2.73 billion, up 7.5 percent from the same time last year.
"The (operating results) look very strong," said independent airline consultant Rick Erickson. "Going forward, the second quarter won't have the one-time hits. It's hard to say what the value of fuel is going to do ... but they've got the efficiencies of all of their new aircraft."
Air Canada's A-series shares rose 15 Canadian cents, or nearly 2 percent, to C$8.20 on the Toronto Stock Exchange. They have fallen by a third this year, despite a strong Canadian market that has also buoyed rival WestJet Airlines (WJA.TO).
The airline's yield, or revenues per passenger mile, rose 2.2 percent and non-fuel expenses fell 4.8 cents. Overall costs were flat as the fuel bill rose by C$130 million.
Air Canada plans to park four of its older Boeing 767-200 jets. It will also suspend service to Rome and Osaka.
It now expects its capacity to increase in 2008 by 1 to 2.5 percent, down 1.5 percentage points from its previous outlook.
Meanwhile, Brewer said Boeing's projected delay in delivering its 787 aircraft complicates its fleet planning. He expects to receive its first one in 2012 rather than 2010.
Air Canada plans to seek compensation for the delay from Boeing, although Brewer did not provide a figure.
Air Canada's parent, ACE Aviation Holdings ACEa.TO, is scheduled to report its results on Friday.
Additional reporting by Scott Anderson; editing by Rob Wilson